In many countries in the Sahel and northern Africa, the state lacks an effective presence in border regions. This has dire consequences for communities that reside there, as the state is generally unable or unwilling to provide them with basic security and services. State absence has become a particularly pressing concern since the 2011 fall of Gaddafi in Libya, which set in motion a chain reaction of armed group formation and the spread of violent extremist organisations that now threaten the stability of the region. By capitalising on both the absence of state security and local populations’ grievances about central state neglect, these groups have been able to cement their presence throughout the Sahel, in Mali and Niger for example.

This report explores whether traditional authorities in Mali, Niger and Libya could play a role in addressing these dynamics. Since pre-colonial times, traditional authorities such as tribal chiefs and religious leaders have performed governance tasks, such as the administration of justice and conflict mediation. They also play ‘an important symbolic role as representatives of community identity, unity, continuity, and stability.’[1] This has earned them a high degree of legitimacy among the public.[2] In areas of state absence, traditional authorities could therefore provide pivotal entry points for local dispute resolution and mediation initiatives. Yet, as this report shows, traditional authorities have always been part of the political context, and are thus liable to be drawn into political – and sometimes violent – conflict.

To assess whether traditional authorities can contribute to governance and stability, this report aims to provide a better understanding of how traditional authorities come to power, the extent to which their communities regard them as legitimate authorities, and the extent to which communities feel that traditional leaders are best-placed to address their concerns. The application of this multidimensional perspective to legitimacy, as advanced by Beetham (2013), leads to the following central research questions:

How do the traditional authorities engaged in local governance in fragile settings, such as areas of limited statehood, build and maintain legitimacy? And what consequences does this have for (inter)national interventions that aim to foster (formal) local government and stability?

To answer this question, the study compares experiences with traditional governance in border regions in Mali, Niger, and Libya. The three countries are home to the Tuareg ethnic group. As such, they present a natural experiment that allows for the tracing of the evolution of traditional authority regimes over time amidst different state structures and different types of regimes, and under the influence of different contextual pressures and challenges.[3] In addition, all three countries are theatres of violent conflict. Yet the conflict dynamics present in the countries manifest themselves in many different ways. To account for the different effects these dynamics have on traditional governance structures, the following border regions were selected:

Mali: Since the outbreak of the 2012 Malian rebellion, northern Mali has fallen into the hands of non-state armed groups. While the armed groups that together constitute the pro-autonomy alliance Coordination des movement de l’Azawad (CMA) control the northern Kidal region, the Ménaka region is in the hands of armed groups belonging to the pro-central state Platform coalition. Selection of these regions allows for a comparison of the traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under different types of armed governance.

Niger: The Tillabéri region has faced decade-long cross-border cattle raids and revenge violence between Nigerien Fulani and Malian Tuareg. Radical armed groups have been able to capitalise on these conflict lines, resulting in a rapid increase in violence and instability in the region. Tahoua is the hotbed of Tuareg rebellions in Niger and is also experiencing an increase in cross-border violence from Mali. Nevertheless, the municipalities selected for this study are located in a more secure area of Tahoua – allowing for a comparison of traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under different security conditions.

Libya: The Fezzan region in Libya has known a long history of state neglect. Yet its Tuareg population has always been deemed an important ally for central governors from colonial times to the present day.[4] Today, the two main national conflict actors seek to establish alliances with Tuareg armed groups to put the balance of power in their own favour – albeit in a haphazard manner. Inclusion of the Fezzan in this study therefore allows for an exploration of traditional governance structures’ legitimacy and ability to govern under conditions of national armed governance attempts to gain control over the region.

The study relies on data obtained through 323 key informant interviews with traditional authorities and other governance actors. In addition, we organised 1-2 rounds of follow-up workshops and meetings in the three countries to discuss initial findings and recommendations with local research teams, as well as with a wide range of experts, (traditional) authorities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and members of the international community. Key data collected on the relationships between traditional authorities and other actors in the municipalities under study here can be found at our project website: link.

Analysis of the collected data led to in the following main findings and recommendations:

Traditional authorities as governance actors

As a main point of departure, it should be recognised that traditional authorities are not necessarily ‘informal’ or ‘non-state’ actors. In many countries, the law allocates to traditional authorities a position in the formal administration. This is particularly the case in Niger, where the creation and nomination of traditional authorities has been formally regulated and where the law ascribes to them tasks such as tax collection and dispute resolution. In our research, we found that Nigerien traditional authorities also take on other administrative tasks such as carrying out local censuses and acting as key points of coordination for humanitarian organisations active in their communities.

Many of our respondents in all three countries also ascribe to traditional authorities the task of representing them before state institutions. In practice, this means that traditional authorities confer requests from the community on to the relevant state institutions. In this manner, traditional authorities form a parallel representative structure to elected officials in countries such as Niger and Mali, which became formal democracies in the early 1990s. In Libya, which decentralised governance to municipal councils after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, traditional authorities similarly persevered as the main representative bodies for communities in the southern, neglected Fezzan region.

This is not to say that all respondents see traditional authorities as legitimate authorities. In fact, these authorities tend to represent an elite status quo. In pre-colonial and colonial times, traditional leaders stood at the top of tribal hierarchies and ruled over lower-level castes of vassals, menial workers and slaves. In many cases, contemporary traditional authority structures still reflect (pre-)colonial hierarchical relationships that are increasingly rejected by lower status groups, including women and young people. The relatively recent introduction of municipal democratic structures has created novel arenas where competition for power between these groups now plays out.

The resulting tensions have the potential to turn violent and have led many respondents to accuse traditional authorities of being just as corrupt and self-interested as political parties (a common complaint throughout the world). In Niger, this is further compounded by the fact that national political elites have meddled in the creation and nomination of traditional authorities to further their own political agendas. These dynamics undermine communities’ perceptions of traditional authorities as neutral and objective governance actors.

So what does all this mean for (inter)national interventions that aim to foster (formal) local government and stability? Rather than taking a normative stance about whether there is a place for traditional authorities in contemporary African democracies, this study recommends a more pragmatic approach. The presence of traditional authorities is a given, and they are often the sole governance actors in areas of limited statehood. Despite their flaws and oft-exclusionary nature, this makes them crucial allies for those seeking to improve governance and security in Mali, Niger, and Libya.

Working with traditional authorities could thereby contribute to the attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 16, promoting the rule of law, ensuring equal access to justice, and ensuring responsive inclusive and representative decision making. In addition, collaborating with these actors would be in line with the 2015 Advisory Group of Experts on UN Peacebuilding Architecture recommendation that ‘new approaches need to be found, which understand peacebuilding, at least in its early phases, as having more to do with strengthening local domains of governance than trying to re-establish strong central authority.’[5]

To achieve these aims, however, efforts should be undertaken to address the exclusive tendencies of traditional authority structures and key dynamics that contribute to this, such as their politicization. From our discussions with high-level political elites in Niger, there emerged a call to organise a national forum to discuss the negative effects that the introduction of democratic governance has had on traditional authorities’ perceived neutrality and legitimacy. Given that we find that politicization has similarly affected traditional authorities in Mali, we argue that the time has also come for a broader regional debate on the role of traditional authorities in contemporary governance structures. The dialogues, which should include underrepresented groups, could inform processes such as the current constitutional reform in Mali, which seeks to provide traditional authorities with designated seats in a new second chamber, or the further development of local governance interventions in Libya.

A second recommendation, specifically proposed by the Nigerien Minister of Justice, is to codify traditional authorities’ customs in the form of jurisprudence and to standardise their justice provision. This could improve the transparency and objectivity of local justice provision and allow for a comparison between the traditional (sharia) law implemented in these countries and international human rights norms. In areas presently under the control of armed groups, such as northern Mali, efforts to engage with Qadis (traditional religious figures in reconciliation and justice, administering verdicts on the basis of Islamic law) in this manner would allow for the establishment of a channel of communication between the central state and the justice providers who currently operate under armed governance. A related recommendation is to train and equip all types of traditional authorities – especially those with limited access to resources – to ensure the effectiveness and neutrality of their governance.

Traditional authorities under armed governance

Institutional reforms will be unable to capitalise on the governance potential of traditional authorities, however, if they overlook the fact that insecurity and the presence of (extremist) armed groups in the Sahel and Libya affects the way in which these authorities govern. In our research, the most obvious cases in point are the traditional authorities in the Ménaka and Kidal regions in northern Mali. Here, traditional authorities have allied themselves to armed groups – either as a way to protect their position against new armed contenders (as is the case in Kidal) or as a necessary step to ensure their own security and ability to govern (as is the case in Ménaka).

The fact that the relationship between traditional authorities and armed groups is often formed out of sheer necessity for protection is also visible in the Tillabéri region of Niger. Here, the increase in inter-communal conflict and the presence of armed extremist groups has put traditional authorities between a rock and a hard place. As key representatives of both warring local communities and the state administration, they are often the target of (death) threats and abductions. At the same time, state forces often suspect traditional authorities of collaborating with armed actors – thereby making them potential targets of persecution rather than recipients of state security provision. In the Fezzan in Libya, lastly, the absence of a central state means that tribal armed groups are the sole security actors present – up to the point that traditional authorities perceive them to be a formal part of the country’s military structure.

Their alliances with armed groups may allow traditional authorities to continue to govern in the short term. In the case of northern Mali, however, we find that the increased fragmentation of conflict has limited traditional authorities’ scope of authority and their legitimacy. As communities become divided along ethnic, resource-based and clan-based fault lines, so do their traditional authority structures. This has weakened traditional authorities’ ability to engage in communal conflict mediation. In addition, the population increasingly sees armed groups as more effective governance actors than the traditional authorities themselves – oftentimes sidelining traditional authorities and taking requests directly to the armed groups. In a way, the population thereby mimics the instrumental relationship of traditional authorities with armed actors, which can protect their safety and interests.

Most importantly, traditional authorities in both regions in northern Mali note that armed groups determine the available scope for their governance efforts – meaning there are certain topics and individuals that traditional authorities cannot, or do not want to, burn their hands on. A similar dynamic is seen in the Fezzan region in southern Libya. There, traditional authorities maintain an open line of communication with tribal armed groups, which allows them to coordinate on local issues. However, strategic discussions about the armed groups’ alliances with the two national competing governments are off limits to the traditional leaders.

From the above, it follows that many traditional authorities have been able to adapt to life under armed governance. Given that the use of coercive force is now in the hands of non-state armed groups, however, traditional authorities’ ability to govern depends on their relationships with these actors. Armed actors provide them with the force needed to implement their decisions and provide them with much needed security. The case of northern Mali shows that this dynamic has the potential to result in a dangerous spiral of inter-communal conflict that, by extension, implicates the traditional authorities. The question is whether this means that traditional authorities’ role in conflict mediation and resolution has been played out completely?

Our findings suggest that this is not necessarily the case. There are interesting examples of traditional authorities contributing to ethnic reconciliation and conflict resolution by engaging in communal talks that sidelined warring armed groups and state authorities in Mali (end of 1996 rebellion). In Libya, traditional authorities similarly played a crucial role in ending the 2014 Ubari war – an achievement that respondents identify as a major factor contributing to these actors’ legitimacy today. On a smaller scale, the Niger chapter identified the Fulani rugga (peace brokers) and garso (scouts) as instrumental in solving conflicts between Fulani herders and other herders and farmers.

This report’s third main recommendation is therefore to support mediation efforts at local level to build a foundation of stability that could subsequently be scaled up. Although this will not solve all conflicts in the region, it could prevent the further spread and escalation of local conflicts before they take on an ethnic dimension or become co-opted by radical armed groups. Due to their historical role as conflict mediators and representatives of their communities, traditional authorities are pivotal partners in such inter-communal dialogues. Moreover, the recent experience of the Clingendael Academy – training negotiation skills for communities subject to herder-farmer conflicts in Nigeria – showed that traditional authorities are also key partners because the outcomes of these dialogues will need to be communicated back to the entire community in order to build acceptance and support.

There are already a number of organisations present in the border area between Mali and Niger that arrange meetings between representatives of different communities to invest in trust and dialogue. These efforts should be further supported. Investing in capacity building for traditional authorities, such as negotiation skills and an understanding of important rules and regulations – such as the pastoral code, would likely improve the success rate of such reconciliation efforts. Facilitating dialogue and the exchanges of experiences at regional and national levels could subsequently scale up these efforts. This would also allow for the establishment of a communication channel between local communities and the (inter)national community.

The findings from our country studies also act as a warning signal for the Sahel and West Africa region more generally. Traditional authorities are often the only authority structures present in regions threatened by (radical) armed groups, which have shown the ability to capitalise on local fault lines that are often linked to conflicts over access to natural resources. Therefore, many of the recommendations presented above should also be applied to at-risk regions, to strengthen local resilience against armed governance. Such a proactive approach would entail supporting traditional authorities’ ability to engage in effective and transparent governance efforts, including justice provision, combined with support for both preventing and resolving inter- and intra-community conflicts. Although such measures will not defeat (radical) armed groups, they could make it much more difficult for them to anchor themselves in new localities.

Logan, C. 2013. ‘The roots of resilience. Exploring popular support for African traditional authorities’, African Affairs, 112(448), 353-376.
Logan ibid; Molenaar, F. et al. 2017. A Line in the Sand: Roadmap for sustainable migration management in Agadez. CRU report, The Hague: Clingendael Institute.
See McCauley, J.F. and Posner, D.N. 2015. ‘African borders as sources of natural experiments: promise and pitfalls’, Political Science Research and Methods, 3(2), 409-418.
As discussed in Chapter 2, at times this was alternated with periods of exclusion as part of ethnic divide-and-conquer strategies.
United Nations, The Challenge of Sustaining Peace: Report of the Advisory Group of Experts for the 2015 Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, 29 June 2015, p. 16.